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MATT Hyland is used to playing against older competitors – he’s been doing it for some time now. When he first hit the Tigers’ junior representative scene in Harold Matthews (under-16s) he was a year younger than the rest.

When he moved up to the SG Ball side (under-18s) once again he was a year younger. Then, in his second year in that side, he captained the team before making the jump up to the Toyota Cup.

That season was 2008 and despite playing just 10 games in the under-20s, Hyland was rewarded with the Wests Tigers Toyota Cup Player of the Year award. Such is the hype around the 18-year-old back-rower you get the feeling he’ll only spend part of 2009 in the lower grade despite also being eligible in 2010. If you are looking for a young gun to make a quick jump to the NRL, look no further.

“I really just want to get a full season of under-20s under my belt and be a consistent player over a full season,” the modest youngster says.

“Then if an opportunity comes up later in the season to play NRL football, I want to have put myself in a position to be considered. I know it might take a little longer to crack it for a go in the top grade but if I keep my head down and train and play hard then I hope that by at least next season I’m being thought about.”

Having spent the off-season training fulltime with the NRL squad, Hyland is definitely in the mix – despite his tender age. Tough and uncompromising, he has already been likened to Chris Heighington.

“It’s just a thrill to be part of it all, really. I’ve been working hard and things have been progressing nicely but I know I have to keep working hard to keep it all going,” Hyland adds.

“I don’t really model my game on anyone but I do like to play the way Chris Heighington plays. That is, I like to focus on hard work and that sort of stuff and I break my game down to doing my job to help the team.”

When did you start playing rugby league?

I started playing with Holy Cross Rhinos when I was just six years old, so I have always been from the local area. We always had a good team that would make the grand final so we had success right up to under-12s when unfortunately the team folded. I had to move over to the Carlingford Cougars but returned to Holy Cross for under-16s.

How did you get on the Wests Tigers’ radar?

I went away on a development tour in under-14s and performed reasonably so I was invited down to train over the summer with the (Harold) Matthews squad and I was lucky enough to make the team from the trials. I remember feeling stoked and rapped to make it onto the first step of a possible career in rugby league. I started having thoughts that I could go all the way in the sport, but I made sure I didn’t get ahead of myself. I have made sure I have other things in my life, like my apprenticeship in carpentry that I’m doing at the moment. I am working on a few home renovations and decks and I enjoy being out there doing it.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I love going fishing a fair bit, when I can get away. I will fish in the harbour here in Sydney or get up the coast when I can to put a line in the water. I haven’t caught anything really big yet but I’ll keep trying and I will one day!

Who has been the biggest influence on your career so far?

My parents. They have always supported my football, making sure I get to games and training and all of that. They were never sideline screamers but they have always supported me. They kept my feet on the ground as well, making sure I worked towards a trade or something else just in case footy doesn’t work out.

Have you always supported the Wests Tigers?

I supported two sides growing up. One was the Tigers because they were obviously my local team, but I had a real soft spot for Newcastle. My mother’s uncle, Ian Bonnett, was the CEO when they won the competition in 2001 so it was natural for me to support them. And it didn’t hurt they had the world’s best player in Andrew Johns playing for them!

Were you surprised at how well you progressed last year, winning the under-20s award?

I was surprised to win the award, considering I only played half a year. But playing ‘up’ last year has helped my footy, and having trained fulltime over the off-season with the NRL boys, I know how hard it is to keep the progression going. Tim Sheens seemed to be happy with my work ethic, so I’m pleased with that. He told me just to keep working hard and doing what I’m doing and opportunities will come. So I will just do that.

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National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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